City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Morning walk, Enskede 8 May 2020

Or, the 15-metre city outside your front door is as important as the 15-minute city around you; Allowing the street to decide what it wants to be; How to get to the 15-minute City.

This careful emphasis on the small scale, and the slower dynamic, suggests an engagement with the most potent of spaces that surround us. As suggested previously, the street is the basic unit of city: all systems converge on the street, all culture plays out there, one way or another.

Yet the urban planning cultures of the Acceleration-era tended to largely ignore the street, in favour of overpasses and underpasses, flyovers and roundabouts, all dedicated to speeding up, and scaling out, pushing the city’s edges out to the range of the car moving as rapidly as possible. As described earlier, the Slowdown changes all this.

This shift places an emphasis on the One-Minute city, as much as the 15-Minute city, 20-Minute city, 30-Minute city…

One-minute City

The One-minute City is loosely described by the space outside your front door—and that of your neighbours adjacent and opposite, suggesting numerous tight circles of engagement overlapping in the street, around your block or house. Here, you have the most regular and direct participation, responsibility, and interaction, merely propped up on propinquity. Depending on your context, this is the immediate environment defined by a one-minute stroll or roll. (Of course, if it takes you a minute to get outside, perhaps think of this as the 15-metre city!)

Here’s where some of my recent work with my colleagues at Vinnova gets a mention. These ‘small pieces loosely joined’ and ‘One-minute City’ models are being tested in practice on missions to retrofit Swedish streets. The work Vinnova is guiding, in collaboration with ArkDes, the Swedish national centre for architecture and design, involves multiple agencies, multiple cities, multiple streets, and a loose kit of parts for transforming streets from motor vehicle-dominated spaces into biodiverse and socially diverse places, parking bay by parking bay. It follows this adaptive, iterative, distributed pattern, working in the gaps left by previous modes of development, and emphasising social and ecological progress rather than propping up old economic paradigms or rusting governance frameworks.

This is predicated on flipping the paradigms underpinning the Swedish street, noting that the street is not about traffic and never has been. We have simply allowed it become so. As I’ve written elsewhere, give the street to traffic engineers and you get traffic; give it to gardeners, you’d get gardens. The collaboration projects Framtidsgator (Future Streets) and Street Moves provide a platform for multiple applications in streets, deploying the toolkit of tactical urbanism, as variations on the parklet idea, yet with the legitimate and sustainable strategic impulse that a government can embody.

Ed. If you read Swedish, or use Google Chrome’s translate feature, Dagens Nyheter featured Framtidsgator last week and Dagens Industri featured Street Moves this week, or Vinnova’s Facebook page here. We’ve been working with Spacescape, White Arkitekter, Lundberg Design, and KTH on this aspect, as well as Stockholms stad, of course, and with municipalities in Umeå, Helsingborg, and Malmö to follow. (We might call this the 1-minute City En meter stad in Swedish!) 
The overall programme is coordinated by us at Vinnova (especially the indefatigable duo Filip Kjellgren and Gustav Malm) but leaning heavily on ArkDes Think Tank’s capabilities — especially Daniel Byström, Linda Kummel, and of course the inspirational Kieran Long — who are coordinating a wider reference group including Transportstyrelsen, Voi, and M amongst others. The orchestration of these partners across various layers is part of the systemic change ‘platform strategy’ I’m helping develop at Vinnova. More later.

The modular street elements, designed by Lundberg Design, are proposed in timber, which suggests not only a softening of the streetscape, easy assembly and disassembly, circular use and re-use of local resources, and the cultivation of a silvery patina that will tell the story of its use by the street. Timber will also deliberately require continual engagement, care, and adaptation. In this, these humble street elements might recall the rebuilt temples of Ise, and Takeshi Nakatani’s phrase regarding timber construction: “It’s through this constant process of renewal that something lasts forever.” It’s also inspired by the green streets I saw in Berlin’s Schöneberg a few years ago, informally cared for by both residents and municipality.

First prototypes of Street Moves (AKA the boardwalk) out on the street, September 2020

In terms of governance and participation, the projects, and the artefacts themselves, are being framed such that it is the street itself, in terms of the communities that inhabit it, that decides what happens there. In the first instance, we asked architects Spacescape and White Arkitekter, working with the local municipality Stockholms stad, to co-design the streets with small children from four local schools (each street is directly adjacent to a school.)

The children used simple cut-and-paste paper elements—a plan of the street; trees; vehicles; buildings; swing sets etc—that I’d devised in previous workshops with stakeholders, as well as drawing their own additions. Hence the emphasis is on the true expertise of the residents and users of the street—the lived expertise of the place—rather than that of the traditional understanding of expertise, in distanced professional disciplines. Planners at Stockholms stad (and the architecture firms) then translate the kids’ inputs into workable plans for costing and delivery.

Playgrounds, beaches, swing sets and loungers, in the place of parked cars

Here, in that basic participation model, I’m trying to adapt Michael Sorkin’s remarkably prescient Sidewalks of New York framework — some excerpts from his 30 lines of code below — and aligning with the Swedish tradition of cooperative building governance and open source software principles.

1. The Streets belong to the people!
2. So do the Sidewalks.
3. A minimum of 50 percent of the Street space of New York City shall be taken out of the realm of high-speed and mechanical locomotion and assigned the status of Sidewalk.
4. This minimum shall apply on a Block-by-Block basis.
13. All uses on the Sidewalk shall be public or accessible to the public.
22. Permitted uses shall include sitting, the playing of games and miscellaneous other recreational activities, gardening and agriculture, the storage of bicycles, the capture of rainwater, the care of children, the management of waste, the planting of trees, public toilets, and the sale of books, journals, newspapers, and snacks.
28. Street Trees shall be planted such that they shall, withing five years of their planting, provide adequate shade over the full area of the Block during the months of summer.
30. Sleeping on sidewalks shall only be permitted by permission of the Block Committee on application no less than one day in advance of bedtime.
 — Excerpts from ‘The Sidewalks of New York’, by Michael Sorkin (2012), republished in ‘What Goes Up: The Rights and Wrongs to the City’ (Verso 2019)

We’ll see how far we can move in this direction, but you might imagine what a change of culture this is for municipal planning and traffic departments.

In other words, despite the way we organise municipal governance at the scale of the city, the one-minute city of the street is also where new forms of democracy can happen, as this is where different cultures of decision-making are exhibited and enacted. Different forms of space either prelude or preclude particular forms of social, cultural and political interaction. Everyday infrastructures like streets hold the keys to our possible cultures; not all of the keys, admittedly — clearly other social infrastructures also fundamental shape possible futures — but it’s hard to conceive of a new political imagination being fired without open, generative street cultures.

“In this aspect I am extremely interested in the idea of indeterminate space. Everyone should be able to recognise themselves in it … I believe that the word calle in Spanish does not hold that same meaning that somehow is contained within the English word street. The word calle in Spanish evokes a certain elegance; street, in contrast, evokes a certain idea of informality. It makes reference to something that is not totally finished, something that is still emerging. The idea of street, understood in this sense, is very important.” — Saskia Sassen, ‘Economy, City and Public Space: Quaderns interviews Saskia Sassen’, February 2015

Streets can prototype the kind of democracy that prises open the Overton Window to many alternate possible futures, including for streets themselves, of course. Shifting the mental models — seeing the street as shared garden, theatre, or market, rather than simply car park, for instance — is ultimately key to shifting the built fabric at scale, and thus to the social infrastructures that it can sprout, nurture, grow. TessyBritton describes this broader potential beautifully, outlining the Participatory City Foundation’s work with a similar approach to Tomorrow Today Streets.

By stacking up systems layers behind small prototypes — a systemic change practice I’ll share later over at Dark Matter and Trojan Horses — we are attempting to use the dynamics of tactical urbanism yet with a strategic backing, like an activist-led parklet programme facilitated by the state. In effect, we are describing a way of moving forward with the questions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and participation that can be handled well at a local scale, but whilst doing this across the country at the same time. We are exploring how temporary interventions might iterate and negotiate their way to more permanent, albeit adaptable, forms of public luxury. That is about a new kind of decision-making as much as it is a new kind of street.

“Everyone has become more aware of it. You can see now how, when the streets are not being used by cars, so much space suddenly becomes available. There is suddenly a discussion of what public space is for, and there is this idea that the only thing you should be doing outside is exercise. There’s a sudden recognition of the value of play. The question is how something temporary can become permanent. How does a snapshot of the possible become embedded?” — Liza Fior, muf architects, quoted in ‘Space — the city’s final frontier’, Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, 27 April 2020

Although there is endless research to warrant such moves towards a street dominated by social life and plant life, careful analysis and evidence-based approaches to policy have rarely destabilised these paradigms. We have learned from decades of street retrofits around the world, particularly from the hugely successful strategies in place across the Netherlands, whether Hans Monderman’s shared space principles or Woonerfs. Yet despite this vast array of data, comparatively few of these practices exist elsewhere. It seems as if well-researched data producing reams of analysis and evidence has little effect on decision-making. Most streets are not woonerfs.

Various Dutch shared space approaches, from woonerf (top-left) to Monderman-style shared space

However, in a matter of weeks, Black Lives Matter and COVID-19’s impact on the street produced fundamental behaviour change, at scale, which has the potential to produce different attitudes in return. As with these recent events, these new behaviours could be through small-scale interventions that scale, or by larger-scale events that flare into life and grab the world’s attention, even momentarily.

Ed. Our work above, with streets in Sweden, was nothing to do with COVID-19, essentially. The projects started in mid-2019. Yet they of course fall into a different context now. For details of similar projects in many other cities, see the casebook for this series, 'Clear skies, full parks, can't lose'.

This wrests the street from the realm of technocratic expertise, with its typically self-serving Acceleration-era growth paradigms (road agencies tend to produce roads, which in turn produce traffic, which tends to produce traffic agencies. As Clay Shirky once said, institutions preserve the problems that they are the solution to — this was never truer than with traffic agencies. (In Stockholm, we’ve been lucky enough to locate some excellent, open and progressive colleagues within the municipality’s trafikkontoret. They are great partners, yet their qualities are rarely found in this context, in the main.)

These alternate processes, prototyped by protests and pandemic, simplify the idea of the street on the one hand — it becomes a biodiverse and public space, essentially — and yet on the other hand, they allow the street to remain complex, by pulling focus onto its ongoing iteration, adaptation, maintenance, operation and growth. From a governance and design perspective, this means engaging with a living street, rather than the street living only in plans.

Democracy, when pursued as an open system — such as Jane Jacobs’s notion of open city, and Richard Sennett’s many profound variations on the theme — is, as Albert Camus memorably put it, “the form of society devised and maintained by those who know they don’t know everything.” In an open city, the street’s adaptation will involve numerous conflicting alternatives, and the agonistics of that can be held and managed at the level of the street. Genuinely given some of the keys to decision-making, the community themselves may be able to hold this complexity perfectly well, at this scale.

“The street, conceived in this way, more than a space in which to represent ritualised routines, is a place in which new forms of the social and the political can appear. Street and Square are different — even from the viewpoint of their political reading — to the piazza and the boulevard, perhaps two of the most emblematic elements of European public space.” — Saskia Sassen, ‘Economy, City and Public Space—Quaderns interviews Saskia Sassen’, February 2015

The figure-ground issue of the street being lost in the wider mobility system, due to the sheer magnetic pull of managing car traffic, can be side-stepped by shifting the mobility system away from car traffic. The street itself becomes the scale of decision-making for much of its reality, simplifying the macro to enable complexity at the micro (Sorkin’s guide above helps, aligned to the earlier discussion of ‘scales of decision-making’ sketched in Slowdown Paper 10.)

John Thackara’s notion of ‘macroscope’ is crucial here, however, partly to simply avoid individual streets inadvertently turning into gated communities. He often uses a street-based example — the practice of paving over previously porous front gardens — to indicate the folly of individualistic decision-making being allowed to scale. So the examples of the Swiss co-ops noted previously are useful design guides to scale, dynamic, and ownership. Recall Andreas Hofer noting that this form of deliberate and deliberative agonistic avoids participation simply being “the unweighted sum of individual interests”, but can enable the street to be “removed from particularist interests”. Hofer describes how participants are perfectly capable of “talking collectively of the city”, and suggests that shared elements, such as the street, can be be clearly understood in the broader context of the district.

These processes indicate that people tend to make sustainable choices when the immediate community can work together at the right scale, balancing their own needs with that of the neighbourhood. With connected systems in mind, the street itself is intrinsically the obvious missing middle between the false binary of figure-ground.

“If I never have a cent
I’d be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street
Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street …”
 — Excerpt from ’On the sunny side of the street’ (Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Field, 1932)

Ed. A good review of this work appeared some months later in Bloomberg CityLab: 'Make Way for the ‘One-Minute City’ and Fast Company: 'How to transform your street into a one-minute city'

Ville du 1/4h (15-minute city)

Throughout 2019-20, Paris captured the imagination of many with its ‘15-Minute City’ plans. I noted these in Slowdown Paper 11, describing this simple notion of reorganising the city such that all your basic everyday needs, from education to groceries to healthcare to culture and so on, are located within 15 minutes walk or bike or scoot or roll of your front door.

This requires a much enhanced environment, in terms of clean air, greenery, safety and accessibility, and so it follows that there is hugely reduced motor vehicle use. It also implies easy access within this ‘bubble’ to smaller-scale offices and co-working spaces, enabling people to work from their neighbourhood rather than having to travel to a commercial centre elsewhere. It suggests a diversity of people, housing, and public space, in order to foreground culture, interaction, and social life. As these bubbles are defined around individual people and their daily needs, rather than strict exclusionary zones of traditional planning, the city can be seen as a filigreed series of 15-minute radii, rather than walled neighbourhoods, or COVID’s narrow interpretations of bubbles.

This version of the 15-Minute City is not much more advanced than Arup’s plans for Dongtan in 2007. Nor is it that different to the many other 15–20 minute city variants that C40 has handily documented, such as Chengdu, Ottawa, Portland, Milan. Nor indeed is it that different from how cities used to work, before the car.

But it is still a breakthrough. Dongtan was one of the things that made me interested in joining Arup. New into the firm, I remember poring over the plans, marvelling at it, somewhat. Arup’s ‘integrated urbanism’ masterplan for Dongtan, a large island outside Shanghai, was predicated on a low carbon integrated city model (actually a giant spreadsheet!) defining location of infrastructures, housing, amenities and services, within a 10 minute radius, effectively. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.)

For all the reference to the Sorbonne’s Professor Carlos Moreno providing the intellectual backing to la ville du quart d’heure, the huge difference between then and now is not technical at all, but political. The plans are the same, in principle and largely in practice, but quite simply, the hugely impressive Mayor Anne Hidalgo and team has just decided to do it. Shanghai’s authorities in 2007 did not (with many complex reasons as to why). Professor Moreno may have a parametric digital model to hand, rather than a spreadsheet, which might portray the plans as more convincing. Yet there’s no reference to such a thing in any of the publicity around the idea, and the notion that some form of digital twin is a more powerful aide to decision-making is highly questionable. Equally, the complex sociable urban life enabled within these overlapping 15-minute rings would likely be hindered, rather than helped, by the concomitant sense of ‘digital city management’.

Data is never truly convincing, after all, any more than we can use evidence-based decision making for things we have not yet done, and for which there can be no a priori ‘evidence’, by definition. The 15-minute City has been led by ideas, and communicated with stories.

The failure of contemporary urban planning is that it rarely produces sufficient political courage, to kindle the desire for genuine transformation. It may be that the discipline’s fingers are still singed from producing a little too much courage in the past, having been the primary technical experts making the case for the destruction of many cities throughout the 20th century, largely in favour of the automobile. Yet having worked with planners for years, I do not get the impression that the practice has fundamentally rethought its mode in reaction to those projects, those years, those outcomes. If anything, it has simply retreated further into its spreadsheets. (Noting some true and brave exceptions.)

Hidalgo’s courage is partly self-generated, clearly, but also produced by external factors moving in this direction, such as the significant shift to bicycles (including e-bikes and cargo bikes, which are game changers) and other forms of micromobility (such as e-scooters, and some small robotics at some point soon), as well as the recognition of the value of local food cultures, the character of high streets and especially the provenance of local retailers in the face of Amazon and conversely the shift towards online retail thanks to Amazon, the value of biodiverse spaces and slow streets for health, safety, culture and character, as well as the broader recognition of climate change, health, and social justice. And, with Paris in mind, a strong sensibility that vehicle traffic had simply got out of control, that the 20th century model of mobility has run its course, just as global tourism had.

None more French.

All of those factors will have affected Hidalgo’s sense that there are votes in the 15-Minute City, as well as meaningful value. Yet few of those trends have actively been driven by urban planning. With honourable exceptions, planning has usually been in the passenger seat here, and sometimes even sitting on the handbrake.

This is not to lessen Paris’s achievement at all — whether Hidalogo or Moreno, or the teams around them — but to recognise it. Political courage is required, with strong ideas well-communicated, and technical competence can provide a useful platform for these ideas to stand on. Paris has recognised the spirit of the times and grasped it, and this was announced prior to the pandemic, remember. Hidalgo has been leading the transformation of Paris for years, previously announcing that every street will be bike-friendly by 2024 and that all cars with combustion engines will be banned from the city centre by 2030.

That background work means that Paris’s Ville du 1/4h can be relatively quickly invoked, as a variably dense, liveable and enjoyable city, “built around the lightweight non-grid tech of e-scooters, bikes, shared cars, transit, smartphones, and street corner gardens, threaded through super-green 19th century courtyard blocks that balance work and life, politique et plaisir.”

Beyond its form, the idea that these 15-minute bubbles of activity—I prefer ‘bubbles’ to ‘cells’, as if champagne—is defined around your own needs and desires, and then those of your neighbours, conjures the sensation of a rich, thick foam, moving with the neighbourhood’s instincts and interests. These are not static districts, or lines on a plan, but more like a fine-grained and ringed lattice, within which Parisians can thread culture, commerce, conviviality, community. This in-built variability enables a framework for public life that is as richly diverse as its inhabitants, rather than stuck in fixed zones.

This is not necessarily understood, as it is so far from traditional planning, or the mental models of cities enshrined by formal mapping (rather than, say, if Calvino had been cartographer.) Natalie Whittle, writing about the 15-minute city in the Financial Times, appears to think that you are stuck in these bubbles—perhaps subconsciously influenced by corona’s social distancing dynamics.

“On the basis of the lockdown experience, there are aspects of a “15-minute city” that I would struggle to welcome — not least an overfamiliarity with one landscape … Is the ability to move about and switch locations integral to advancement? Is staying in one place the same thing as being stuck in another sense? … Though Moreno and others do not prohibit movement beyond the 15-minute mark, the aspiration to contain work within this distance still seems potentially problematic.”—‘Welcome to the 15-minute city’, Natalie Whittle, Financial Times, 17 July 2020

Later, however, Whittle is right to point out that “not everyone will have the luxury of choosing a home close to their preferred industry, and not everyone will have a home that could double as a long-term office.” Yet this simply indicates how much rethinking we have to do. People should be able to live close to their work, absolutely. We will need that to be largely true, and it would be fairer for many if they could do so. Other people will need significant help—in the form of funding and advice—to be able to design, build and operate workspaces at home, in a way that suits a diversity of living and working patterns.

These are problems to resolve, certainly, yet to flip the point around, it may seem incredibly odd that we asked people to commute for large distances to work (which most hate), or that work could not be better carried out at a variety of workplaces, and in a variety of ways. Not everyone’s work can ‘float’ over space so easily, as many do have to go somewhere, physically, to work. But these occupations should probably be those we ask to commute the least, by better redistributing work in their favour. (For example, much healthcare can be better redistributed to small-scale community centres, rather than overly large hospitals. This same pattern applies to schools, as noted, and many other services, practices, and infrastructures that have been centralised for reasons of cost, profit and efficiency—rather than value.)

The 15-minute city is a way to move all these ideas forward, and thus the virus, for all of the pain it has wrought, may enable Paris to move more quickly and with greater resilience when facing the crises to come.

Either way, Paris has stolen a march here, leading by example. For much of my three-decade career working in and with cities, there had not been much reason to observe or discuss contemporary Paris. The place was lovely, of course, and fascinating, but for its history rather than its future. The Eurostar’s obligatory comparison of gleaming Kings Cross St Pancras with tatty Gare du Nord had allowed Londoners to settle into an uncomfortable and lazy arrogance about an old relationship. But these two old stagers now have reversed roles: London has all the problems, and Paris, somehow, a bright future.

In fact, these two old stations continue to embody the situation. St Pancras looks like a shopping mall rather than a station, at a time when the very idea of massed, generic shops and offices is at least somewhat questionable. Whereas Gare du Nord still looks like a station. The furore over Gare du Nord’s redevelopment, which started well before the pandemic, rests on precisely this question: should we be building vast amounts of office and retail space over a train station?

A slice of the proposed Gare du Nord redevelopment

Emmanuel Grégoire, the deputy mayor for urban development, said “We are not opposed to the station’s renovation, which is necessary. But the Gare du Nord should be a railway station before all else, not a shopping centre before it is a station.” (The development is being imposed by national government over city government.) Depending on which way this debate resolves, that question—railway station as a public space versus railway station as host for commercial space—will speak volumes. The unintended delays over the development of Gare du Nord, now presumably extended hugely due to the pandemic, may have allowed the old station time to move to the next model. In my view, rebuilding the station as high-speed railway station, with biodiverse civic space and a diversity of supporting public services, infrastructures and environments sitting at the heart of multiple bubbles of la ville du 1/4 heure, would allow Paris to lean into the future of Green Deals and Slowdowns, as opposed to copying from London’s soiled Cool Britannia-era playbook, soggy with lager.

For it is Paris that now feels inventive, bold, diverse, and apparently rather genuine in looking to tackle the problems that all large cities face. It conveys élan rather than ennui. There are deep, systemic issues beneath the glossy visions and strategies, and Paris is more than just ‘the middle bit’. But which major city does not have these problems? The question is how they address them, and under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris has repeatedly demonstrated interesting, brave, and forward-looking thinking and practice.

And it is Ville du 1/4 heure that so perfectly encapsulates this spirit and this agenda, embodying broader urban ideas through these places and infrastructures of everyday life, and the diverse cultures that it will engender and nurture.

Next: 37. Slowdown landscapes: ‘The Aer and Smoak dissipated’; learning from 1661, and from 50,000 years
Previous: 35. Small, unfinished, adaptive everyday landscapes
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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